Essential Reading

May 3, 2014, based on Luke 24:13-35

Fr. Benjamin Thomas

There is a story about an Episcopal grandmother who, after a lifetime of attending church, finally decides that it is time to read the Bible. So, one summer, she settles into her chair and begins to read. When her priest returns from vacation a few weeks later, the pious lady heads straight for him at coffee hour. She looks at the priest and declares, “I’ve been reading the Bible… and did you know that it quotes all of the best parts of the Book of Common Prayer?”

It’s an old joke, but it captures a major paradox of the Episcopal Church: our worship, which we treasure is steeped in scripture, but many parishioners are not. Every Sunday, we read three lessons from scripture, we recite a psalm, the phrasing and imagery of our prayers are lifted from the Bible, while the eucharistic prayers essentially retell the biblical story of salvation in condensed form. From the opening “Alleluia” to the closing “Thanks be to God,” a person is hard pressed to find more than a dozen words in a row that are not taken from Scripture.

Yet, for all of this, many Episcopalians hold the Bible at arm’s length. I suppose there are any number of reasons for this: The Bible is hard to read. Grumpy fundamentalists quote the Bible, and we don’t want to be mistaken for grumpy fundamentalists. Some of us are too busy to read the Bible. Maybe we find the Bible boring.

Whatever our excuse, a devotional practice of reading does not play a major part in the common culture of Episcopalians the way it does in the Baptist church where I grew up, the Pentecostal church next door, or even among our Anglican counterparts elsewhere on other parts of the world. Even so, we still go to church, we give of our time and money to God, and are often deeply spiritual people. Do we really need to read the Bible if we already believe in God?

The answer depends on what you want out of your relationship with God. If you like things exactly as they are, you probably don’t need to do anything. But if you would like to grow in faith and see the hand of God quietly directing your life, you should read the Bible. The reason for this is that without a knowledge of scripture, we are not very likely to understand how God works. In this season of Easter, it is worth noting the resurrection is presented as being especially hard to recognize without a firm grounding in the Word of God.

Consider the two disciples from today’s Gospel. Luke tells us that on the evening of the first Easter, Cleopas and his traveling companion are headed from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They are still reeling from the events of Good Friday, and even though they had heard from Mary Magdalene and the other women that Jesus had been resurrected, they did not understand how such a thing could happen.

As these two disciples proceed on their way, a stranger joins them on the road. The conversation turns to the subject of Jesus’s crucifixion, which had more or less destroyed the disciples’ hope that Jesus was the Messiah. To which the stranger makes a fairly blunt reply: “He said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

The stranger, as we know, turns out to be Jesus, who remains a little exasperated by his slow-witted disciples, even in the Resurrection. So Jesus reminds them of all the things they should have known or been able to guess about the Messiah from the Jewish scriptures. All the while, I suppose that he’s thinking something like “I wonder what are they teaching kids in the synagogue these days. Back in my time, I had to memorize the Torah, not just pick it out on a multiple choice test.”

After this impromptu lesson in the Old Testament, the three of them sit down for dinner. Luke tells us that Jesus says the traditional Jewish prayers over the bread at the beginning of the meal and in this moment “[the disciples’] eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’”

I find it interesting that the disciples still needed instruction in scripture after following Jesus and hearing him teach for months or even years before. I can’t imagine that these disciples were totally ignorant of the big themes of theology or that they would have been lost in church without a full text bulletin, but as followers of Jesus, they still had room to grow in faith and in the recognition of the resurrected Christ by looking more carefully at the Word of God.

If I have read their situation correctly, it is not all that different from our situation. We too are followers of Jesus. We know the big themes of theology, we do just fine at church, but the deeper knowledge of scripture eludes us. Collectively, our loose attachment to scripture serves well as a basis for gently poking fun at ourselves, but it can also make it hard for us to recognize Jesus when he appears in our midst.

So let me pose a few questions: Have you seen Jesus since Easter? How would you know if you did see him? In this account from Luke, recognizing Jesus in the resurrection begins with scripture. Before the disciples’ eyes are opened to the miracle of Christ’s victory over death, they first had to understand the kind of God who had brought it about. Before they could see that Jesus was the Messiah, they first had to have a pretty good idea of what they were looking for.

It seems reasonable to assume that if we want to see the resurrected Christ, we have to know which God we are looking for. Although it is theologically fashionable to point out that “God is a mystery” and that “human beings can never know the mind of God,” such statements can be used to cover up a pattern of willful ignorance about the leading source of information on God—the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.

It seems to me that if we really want to know how God works, if we want to orient our lives to the purpose of God, then it is time for all us—myself included—to make more time for the honest study of scripture. In other words, if we are going to have any chance of recognizing Jesus when he becomes a fellow traveller with us as he did with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the sure way to get ready for such a meeting is a steady spiritual diet of reading the Bible.

Now, I understand that this advice may sound a little too evangelical for some Episcopalians, and so, I don’t ask you to simply take my advice as the last word on this matter, instead, let me suggest that we listen again to instruction of our beloved Book of Common Prayer. For nearly five hundred years, Anglicans around the world have prayed a beautiful collect penned by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer which expresses my hope for us in words far more eloquent than my own. Let us pray:

“Blessed Lord, who has caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may ever hold fast to the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

One Comment On “Essential Reading”

  1. This is a beautiful sermon. It makes me smile. That closing collect is so wonderful that I should stop talking about it and let its words speak for themselves. I’ll just add that I prefer the wording replicated in this sermon rather than the one used in the Liturgy of our hymnal: “…hear them, read, learn, and take them to heart…” God’s words are food; whether snacked on in private (devotion) or served up by a chef (pastor). You don’t just “take them to heart.” You “inwardly digest them!”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *